‘Freedom Riders’ at Warren
Performance about milestone in Civil Rights movement
VINCENT–When the building that now houses Warren Middle School was being constructed in 1960, college students in North Carolina were staging the first student-led sit-in to protest segregation in the South. A year later the first Freedom Ride took place.
On Monday, more more than five decades later, about 200 fifth and sixth grade students at Warren Middle School sat down to learn about the Freedom Riders from five members of the Mad River Theater group, who sang, danced and spoke to the gathering about a milestone in Civil Rights history.
For some students, it was an eye-opening experience.
Warren Vice Principal Shane Freschauer said the theatrical, musical presentation of history works with his young students.
“A lot of these kids don’t even remember 9-11,” he said. “I think a lot of them don’t relate to (the Civil Rights struggle), but this really gets the message across. Every year the Mad River Theater sends someone around and it’s always a great performance. We appreciate Artsbridge.”
Mad River Theater was established in 1978. Artsbridge is a nonprofit dedicated to enriching livesin the Mid-Ohio Valley by preserving and perpetuating the arts.
Bob Lucas has been with Mad River Theater for 30 years and, with one exception, has written original songs and lyrics for all its productions.
“I remember when the buses were burning in 1961. I was 8 years old, I was shocked, my parents were shocked,” he said. He developed into a folk singer and songwriter, with civil rights as his artistic compass.
“This play, this story, it speaks true,” he said.
Other productions by Mad River Theater Works include “Walk On: The Story of Rosa Parks;” “Freedom Bound,” about the underground railroad; “Wings of Courage,” about professional boxer, jazz musician and World War I flying ace Eugene Bullard; and “Everybody’s Hero” about baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
“Freedom Riders” was a fast-paced production nearly an hour in length that told the story of the riders through dialogue, music and dance. The vignettes included violence at a segregated lunch counter and a scene in jail after protesters are arrested, with music and dance interludes.
Students gasped when a black man was knocked off his chair by an angry waitress in a scene depicting the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greenboro, N.C., in 1961. Actress Justine Appiah-Denquah introduced another scene by saying, “You never forget the first time you’re arrested.”
Sixth grader McKinley Starcher said she felt a mixture of being entertained and having her mind opened to new possibilities.
“They were really energetic, they seemed happy to be there,” she said. “They were good singers, and they told us a lot about the history of black people. I didn’t know back then how easy it was for them to get hurt, to go to jail. It seems pretty hard to go to jail and be a black person.”
Another student in the audience, Jewelee Brown, was enthusiastic about the play and shocked by what she learned.
“I love it, they’re really good singers. I didn’t know much about civil rights. It sounded familiar, but I didn’t realize they got thrown in jail, and it was really bad when the man got pushed off his chair,” she said.
Teacher Lisa Mayle said her class will use the study guide to review the play in social studies class.
“I thought they did a fabulous job with the presentation,” she said.
The discussion will fit well into the monthly class character traits discussion, which this month is “respect,” she said.
It will fit into current events as well, she added.
“We can relate it to things taking place in the world now,” she said.
Freedom Rider timeline
¯ April 9, 1947 – 16 men from the Congress of Racial Equality set out to test the desegregation of interstate travel by taking a bus to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky
¯ Dec. 1, 1955 – Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider and is jailed, beginning the Montgomery bus boycott.
¯ Feb. 1, 1960 – Four students from Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University staged the first major student-led sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
¯ April 15-16, 1960 – The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is founded in Raleigh, N.C.
¯ May 4, 1961 – First Freedom Riders buses leave Washington D.C.,for the South, where riders planned to hold a rally in Louisiana.
¯ May 15, 1961 – The first Freedom Rider bus is met in Anniston, Ala., by a mob of Klansmen, who stopped the bus, set it on fire and attacked the riders, many of whom were hospitalized.
¯ May 21, 1961 – Civil Rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., meet in Montgomery, Ala., to discuss freedom rides.
¯ May 26, 1961 – Freedom Riders Coordinating Committee is formed to organize more rides.
¯ Sept. 13, 1961 – Final Freedom Ride departs.
Source: Artsbridge study guide for “Freedom Riders.”